French Polynesia: Facing up to Fafaru in Tahiti
"Youve got to eat fafaru," advised Daniel, an American ex-pat who has lived in French Polynesia for the last 25 years. "I eat it all the time. It gives strength, force."
Made with fish or shrimp, fafaru is "cooked" by being marinated in fermented seawater. This water, called mitifafaru, is made by soaking a piece of very fresh fish in the cleanest seawater available for a period of three days.
The decomposing fish is then strained out and the water is bottled and sold at local markets and supermarkets. To prepare fafaru one simply cuts fresh fish into thin slices and covers it with mitifafaru for about ten minutes. Pour off the excess mitifafaru and serve the finished dish with taro, plantains and coconut milk.
The hardest detail to transcend while eating fafaru is the smell. The fermentation process is used in numerous Tahitian dishes, but only fafaru smells like a five day-old carcass in its finished state.
When making it, the smell fills the kitchen. On the table the aroma overpowers the softer odors of other food. If one drip remains on the outside of the bottle, the fridge will tell of it for days.
My Western subconscious reacts to this by becoming slightly nauseous; I am not the least inspired to eat something that smells like death. But, taking Daniels advice, I decided to try fafaru again in order to immerse myself more in the Tahitian culture.
Like taking a bitter medicine, I stared at my fish for a few minutes before mustering up the courage to put it in my mouth. As the fork neared my nostrils I felt a powerful urge to turn back and give in to my Western instincts, yet somehow, I persevered, and the slippery slice of fish landed on the center of my tongue.
It was uncommonly tender, but the taste of that foul odor drowned out any other flavor. The second bite was OK, the third noticeably better. By the fourth bite I began to recognize the more complex tastes and they werent bad.
Slightly tangy and salty with a velvety texture, there was still an after taste that resembled the smell, but was less offensive. Although I cant say I enjoyed my fafaru, my repulsion to it has been nearly extinguished and Im beginning to understand that it is an acquired taste. Im optimistic about trying it again. Perhaps once Ive been in this country as long as Daniel, I, too, will be able to enjoy what many consider a delicacy.
Buy some fresh local fish (tuna, bonito or swordfish are the preferred choices), and with a sharp knife slice it as thin as you can. If you prefer shrimp, just devein them. Place in a bowl and cover with mitifafaru.
Marinate for 10 min. Drain off excess water. Serve with coconut milk or bottled mitihue (a fermented coconut milk usually found next to the mitifafaru at the market). Just remember that this is a real Tahitian treat!
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Tahiti
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